Gene Autry is the only person to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in all five categories of film, radio, television, recordings and stage. Taking absolutely nothing away from Mr Autry’s stellar achievements, I’ve always thought that if the Walk were to serve a purpose as a true entertainment Hall of Fame (which it doesn’t sadly) then certain stars need to be more fully acknowledged for their true achievements within the industry. To do this it needs to induct a few more into the full house club and in my opinion, first on that list should be Eddie Cantor.
In the early 30s the king of all media in Showbizland was undoubtedly Eddie Cantor. A star in vaudeville and on Broadway, he parlayed his fame into success in movies, radio, music and writing (and later he would become a pioneer and star in television). Eddie was one of the few stars who understood the power of his own image and cannily used it in merchandising as a way to extend the reach (and longevity) of his fame. With his is seemingly massive “banjo eyes”, thick eyebrows and ruffled flop of dark hair, his was an instantly recognisable caricature that appeared everywhere from newspapers to cartoons.
Despite the fact that no one combined talent and success in so many different strands of entertainment, Cantor’s career can be seen as one of over achievement whilst never being seen as the top guy in each of his chosen fields. On Broadway, record and film he was great, but he wasn’t Jolson (of course, who was?) and on radio and television he was a pioneer and evergreen mainstay but neither did he attain the critical and popular heights of Jack Benny. As supremely talented as he was, he seemed to always be in the shadow of one of his contemporaries. Just in the way that Bing Crosby allegedly joked of Frank Sinatra that “A talent like Sinatra’s comes along once a lifetime – but why did it have to be my lifetime?!”, the same could be said of Cantor at different times in relation to his close friends Al Jolson and Jack Benny. Despite being a big enough star that he turned down The Jazz Singer before Jolson got the part, his cinematic life story would later sink into obscurity in comparison to the smash hit that was The Jolson Story. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride...
Eddie took a while to commit to films completely, announcing his abdication of the Broadway throne in an open letter to his patrons in 1930 after a number of false starts. His first sound starring feature, Whoopee! was a mixture of old stage routines and the filmed Broadway tableaux so popular during the first few years of the talkies. However, once he developed his character beyond its stage incarnation, he really took off as a great film comic with a more universal appeal. His movies in the early 30s combined knockabout humour and silly impressions with the trials and tribulations of an perpetually innocent everyman, all topped off with a few song and dance numbers in the Cantor tradition. This heady mix of pure unadulterated entertainment saw him through five films during the pre code era that are among the most entertaining movies you could ever hope to watch.
Cantor’s film career didn’t sustain beyond the mid 30s and after taking a break in 1935, his film appearances became more sporadic, with decidedly mixed results that never recovered the magic of his early days. However, he was always working, and as one door closed, others immediately opened.
I watched Eddie Cantor’s films on television in my youth and loved them, but it wasn’t really until listening to his radio shows that I truly understood the depth of his appeal. He was a fixture on radio from 1931 for the next thirty years in one capacity or another. His shows are the nearest I've heard to the Jack Benny Program in terms of comedic quality, and with his cast of familiar foils like announcer Harry Von Zell and the “Mad Russian” Bert Gordon, Eddie gently sends himself up and gets himself into typically silly situations. However, it is in his moments of directly speaking to the listening radio audience, that one gets the sense of the true Eddie Cantor. Unashamedly promoting good causes, always fiercely patriotic and at times even coming across as a bit of a strict father, Eddie at all times shows sincerity, warmth and a real appreciation of his audience. During the war years, his stirring speeches aimed at the troops and the home front are strong stuff, and he's still the only radio comic I've heard to explicitly mention the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps as a reason to fight for freedom and democracy.
Perhaps just being successful at so many different things has resulted him not being remembered as well as he should be, but his talent and effervescence can’t be denied and anyone who can sustain a career spanning nearly half a century, especially in this day and age deserves respect.
Of course, no mention of Cantor can be complete without his music. When I think of Eddie Cantor, the one word that comes to mind is “fun”. His songs are fun, his films are fun and most of all his voice is the very definition of fun. Songs such as “If you Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie”, “Ida! Sweet as Apple Cider”, “Ma (He’s Making Eyes at Me)”, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and all the rest are sung with such an infectious enthusiasm that they still evoke chills and stand out beyond mere nostalgia. That’s the real fun of Eddie Cantor, seeing or hearing him perform as only he could, he truly is the "Apostle of Pep".
Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Sunday, 22 January 2012
Random Thoughts # 4 - Winter Round-Up featuring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Hal Roach players and an Ode to Old Time Radio
Well, Screen Snapshots has finally opened for business in 2012, armed with a smile, a song and a bunch of New Year’s resolutions that hopefully won’t go the way of most of my New Year’s resolutions. What does this year bring dear reader? More updates for one – definitely more updates. Most importantly, I think I finally have to master the art of the capsule review, as I’ve watched a lot of movies lately that have been interesting but not quite good enough to write an all singing, all dancing review of. I’ve often felt that if I don’t write a lengthy review of a film then I’m short changing the reader and myself. I don’t want to fall into the trap of not contributing anything worthwhile to opinion about classic movies, but on the other hand I guess you have to acknowledge that not everyone wants to read long articles about a film they’ve perhaps never seen (or may never want to!). So a slight format change is in the cards. Another thing I need to do this year is actually start publicizing this blog, something I’ve been a tad shy about in the past, probably due to a lack of confidence on my part. Strike that, definitely due a lack of confidence on my part. I may even partake in one of those blogathon things (whatever they are) once I’m convinced I can hang with my contemporaries in terms of quality. Oh, and a visual overhaul for the blog would be on my wish list, but that involves actually knowing how to do such a thing so don’t hold your breath. Anyway, before I get started on the shining future, here’s a quick round up of a couple of highlights from the last few months. The following films have piqued my interest of late… King of the Underworld (1939) – In theory this movie sounds like it would be one of the all time greats. Humphrey Bogart on the cusp of stardom (I always preferred him pre 1941) teamed up in a Warner gangster film with Kay Francis (though admittedly she was out of favour and just there to make up the numbers). The thought of the two of them together, along with some pretty dynamic poster artwork and brief running time, conjures up visions of a brisk, energetic little film with bags of star power. However, the reality sadly does not live up to the hype (though if it had been made even three or four years earlier, I know things would have been different). Despite Bogart getting top billing, it’s really a fairly typical late period Kay Francis picture, during the time where Warners wanted to get rid of her and she stubbornly (and quite rightly) refused to break her contract. So we are left with Kay Francis lite and Bogart playing the usual gangster type, though in this case a particularly stupid one. And that is that really, there’s not much to say about it other than the movie pretty much exists to fill a contractual obligation for Francis. The only really notable performance is by James Stephenson as a sort of Leslie Howard-esque doomed dreamer who gets caught up in the mobster entourage. I must confess to not knowing much about Mr Stephenson but he seems to have been a very talented and dependable supporting actor who sadly died far too young. He gives the movie an unexpected emotional focus and also gets all the best lines with his veiled insults aimed at the delusional Bogart. King of the Underworld is worth seeing but it’s not as good as the 1936 version that plays in my head. Behind That Curtain (1929) – This is a real oddity, the first sound appearance of Earl Derr Biggers' legendary detective Charlie Chan, though strangely here he’s actually played by an Asian actor and is reduced to a minor part (despite the movie being a loose adaption of one of his literary adventures). It’s possibly one of the worst early sound features I’ve seen, with some appallingly poor acting, overly melodramatic histrionics and long periods where pretty much nothing happens. In fact, I had to double check the running time as I found it difficult to believe that what I watched actually only lasted 90 minutes. The film concerns the usual pre-code obsession of a married woman having an illicit affair, and drags out the premise to film-breaking proportions. In fact, I’m surprised they decided to keep making any films after this one. Lois Moran as the scarlet woman is the worst culprit as she is obviously out of her depth with the role and the new technology. I’ve seen her in Transatlantic from 1931 and though she doesn’t stand out much she at least improved. The big surprise from the cast is the performance by Warner Baxter, who is positively wooden. It was by no means his first sound film but he certainly struggles with the dialogue and more importantly, his vocal range and pitch. Thankfully he did improve and became a truly fantastic movie star but from watching this, I wouldn’t have given him much of a future. Behind That Curtain is really only of interest to lovers of dull obscurities or ardent Chanophiles. Ultimately it gives rise to the myth of early sound films being slow and awkward, something I feel couldn’t be further from the truth. Sadly, on this occasion I’d have to defer to the critics. Grand Central Murder (1942) – Memory really plays tricks with the passing of time. I saw this film on television about 15 years ago and loved it, especially liking Van Heflin’s sardonic, shambling plastic coat wearing detective. It seemed really sharply acted with an arch script full of witty one liners and a feisty dynamic between Heflin and his on screen wife Virginia Grey. Fast forward 15 years and I dusted off my old VHS copy and…well, like I said, memory plays tricks. It’s actually a pretty decent movie, though a bit too talky in parts (I kind of lost track of which character was which, never mind their motives). However, the one thing that really stands out is the performance of Van Heflin himself, which wasn’t quite as brilliant as I remembered but nonetheless earmarks him as an actor with a considerable screen presence. I first became aware of Heflin from watching a few of his early appearances (The Feminine Touch, Johnny Eager and Presenting Lily Mars to be precise) and I’ve always preferred him in this era. He’s really at ease with any genre but his weary, deadpan delivery in comedy really makes me laugh. Of course, he would later find a lot more success in serious drama, be they westerns or noirs but I think it was a missed opportunity to not try him in more comedic roles. Probably the latest one I’ve seen is B.F.’s Daughter, in which he slips very easily into the traditional romantic comedy style. As for Grand Central Murder, it’s not the B-grade Thin Man I remembered but it did give me time to consider the talents of its star. Annie Oakley (1935) - I hate to sound like a broken record, but I also much prefer the early work of Barbara Stanwyck, just like I seem to prefer the early work of pretty much everyone when I think about it. She is feisty yet world weary, glamorous yet ordinary and all in a way that fits in perfectly with the ‘working girl trying to make a living’ ethos of Depression era film. By the time the late 30s rolled along, her performances if anything improved, but she became an altogether more confident and assured (and glamorous) film star. In the character of Annie Oakley, you can see elements of both these screen personas as she transforms from the ordinary girl with a talent for shooting to the well travelled superstar brimming with confidence. Despite the obvious lack of historical accuracy, it’s a very entertaining film and Stanwyck gives a memorable performance that almost succeeds in standing out from the spectacular trappings of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show around her. Luckily the movie is directed under the assured and watchful eye of George Stevens, who never lets the need for spectacle get in the way of the story. Despite all of this, what really made the film interesting for me was the presence of a number of the Hal Roach stock company in (very) small parts, I’d imagine due to the presence of Stevens, himself a Roach alumni. It must be strange to be a featured player in Laurel and Hardy films, creating characters that make millions laugh one day, only to find yourself playing uncredited bit parts the next. Both Charlie Hall and Walter Long appear in Annie Oakley fleetingly and are both effective in their roles (a drunk and an Indian hater respectively). It’s a subject I’m going to look at in more detail in a future blog but it’s just so odd that the likes of Charlie Hall, Walter Long, Mae Busch and James Finlayson didn’t thrive in mainstream features on the strength of their Roach performances (though to be fair, both Edgar Kennedy and Billy Gilbert did). In the end though, I’d like to think that they had the last laugh. Mae Busch may have been seen by mainstream Hollywood as a faded silent star past her best, but today her name and image is far better remembered that the majority of her contemporaries. I know that most actors are just happy to be working but it seems that with the benefit of hindsight, certain character actors like Hall and Long were definitely not used to their full potential. Old Time Radio Highlights – I’ve been listening to a lot of Old Time Radio lately, in fact it has become a relaxing daily ritual. I listen to mostly comedy and a bit of drama and have sampled episodes of most of the well known shows. Rather than point to one particular show or episode this time I‘d like to recommend the joys of listening to Old Time Radio in general. I guess it’s difficult to imagine the hold that radio had on the public from the 1930s through to the mid 1950s when television finally became the norm but in listening to a run of shows, be they comedy, drama or serial you can really feel how the people on the radio managed to reach out and talk directly to the listening audience. In the few years I’ve been listening I have learned to call characters like Lum and Abner, Amos and Andy and many others my friends. I feel reassured by the voices of announcers like Don Wilson and Harry Von Zell and feel a comfortable glow each time I hear the theme music to my favourite shows. Of course, I’m taking a veritable crash course, listening to years worth of shows in a matter of weeks and months. I can only wonder what the cumulative effect of turning on the radio and listening to Jack Benny or Eddie Cantor each week over the course of 20 years or more. It’s strange, but I often catch myself humming a long forgotten advertising jingle (Rinso is always a favourite) or when (for example) feeling ill, immediately think of a product that (I'd assume) no longer exists (e.g. Sal Hepatica – For the Smile of Health!). I genuinely do wonder how Lum and Abner are going to get out of their latest scrape and feel resentment at the way Squire Skimp treats them, like a follower of any daytime soap. What really makes me marvel is when I laugh at a topical joke from the 1940s and realise that it made me laugh more than a 2012 topical joke despite only really getting half the reference (Oh, that Mayor La Guardia and his baby kissing antics!). It underlines that I have spent a lot of time in the company of Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and the like and in a strange way they have become part of my family too. And don't get me started on catchphrases... Of course, the great thing about Old Time Radio is that it co-exists in the same world as the Golden Age of Hollywood and that your favourite actor is a mere guest starring role away from heart wrenching drama or self parodying comedy. Some movie stars seem to do more radio than others but pretty much everyone makes an appearance somewhere. What is more surprising is that the vast majority of the movie stars are adept at radio acting, a separate skill in itself and even more surprisingly, that they had the time! There are quite a few actors that I had overlooked in movies that have really impressed me with their abilities on radio. Herbert Marshall, for example is fantastic in drama and comedy and I really need to see some of his films to see if he's as good on screen. I’d strongly encourage anyone with a love of classic Hollywood to pick up one of the inexpensive collections of OTR shows available on MP3. For me it enabled me to immerse myself deeper into the waters of Hollywood, and to get a fuller understanding of the fashions, gossip and news items of the day. Of course it helps that the shows themselves are hugely entertaining in their own right, with personalities and performances to treasure. Whether it’s Lux Radio Theater, Command Performance, The Jack Benny Program or Amos and Andy, it’s a fascinating window into a vanished era. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to smoke a Lucky, eat some Jell-O (in five delicious flavours) and help the war effort by buying some extra War Bonds…